When I wrote last week about a possible backlash among late-deciding Pennsylvania voters against Hillary Clinton’s all-negative-all-the-time "kitchen sink" strategy, it occurred to me — although I didn’t say it — that a possible flaw in my theory was that Hillary would probably stop blanketing the state with negative ads in the final few days before the primary, precisely to prevent any such backlash.
Well, so much for that idea:
Admittedly, the ad doesn’t explicitly mention Obama’s name. But the implicit attack is pretty damn clear, and very much in keeping with the central argument of her campaign: that he isn’t "ready from day one," whereas she is. The Obama camp’s response:
When Senator Clinton voted with President Bush to authorize the war in Iraq, she made a tragically bad decision that diverted our military from the terrorists who attacked us, and allowed Osama bin Laden to escape and regenerate his terrorist network. It’s ironic that she would borrow the President’s tactics in her own campaign and invoke bin Laden to score political points. We already have a President who plays the politics of fear, and we don’t need another.
And then this:
I honestly don’t know whether Hillary’s endlessly negative frontal assault on her Democratic opponent’s basic fitness for office will create a backlash. (Well, I know it’s apparently created at least a backlash of one. But will Marty’s feelings be mirrored by broad swaths of the electorate? That’s the question.)
But one thing that’s clear is that Hillary’s people are not worried about a backlash. If they were, they wouldn’t be running this ad now. They clearly believe their relentless negativity will have no adverse consequences for them whatsoever — or at least that any such impact will be outweighed by the benefits in tearing down Obama. And they may very well be right.
As Andrew says, negative campaigning works.
Generally speaking, no matter how much people profess their disgust
with political mud-slinging, they are still influenced by the negative
ads they decry, and any "backlash" against the mud-slinger usually
pales in comparison to the ads’ intended effects on his or her
opponent. If there’s a measurable "backlash" at all, it usually just
result in a lower turnout (as in the 2002 California gubernatorial
race), not an actual change in the result of the election.
I believe, however, that there is the possibility of an
unusual backlash in this particular instance, because of a
constellation of circumstances that you don’t usually see in a negative
campaign. First of all, it’s a Democratic primary, not a general
election, so those who are offended by the negative campaigning aren’t
just disgusted in the general "politicians are dirty" sense (which
lends itself to simply tuning out rather than switching sides); they’re
also disgusted in the "how dare you so viciously tear down your own
party’s likely standard-bearer" sense.
Secondly, whereas negative campaigns are usually perceived as being
a two-way street, this one is perceived — Hillary’s protestations to
the contrary — as being largely a negative Clinton campaign vs. a
generally positive Obama campaign. (And in truth, while he has said
some negative stuff, it’s mostly been in a defensive mode, not an
offensive mode. She’s the one employing the "kitchen sink" strategy,
not him. Of course, she’s the one who needs to. But he didn’t exactly employ this sort of purely negative strategy back when she was the front-runner.)
Thirdly, and relatedly, Obama’s whole central message
involves "changing our politics," so if there was ever a candidate who
an otherwise disgusted voter could feel good voting for in rebellion
against mud-slinging negativity, it would be him. (Note to conservative
commenters: the preceding statement is true regardless of whether you
personally feel that Obama’s "message of hope" is nothing but empty
rhetoric. We’re talking about the potential motivations of Democratic primary voters here, not the substance of Obama’s message, or alleged lack thereof.)
And fourthly, Pennsylvanians simply aren’t used to this kind of
incredibly focused national attention — they’ve unexpectedly become
New Hampshire writ large in 2008 — let alone such an intensely focused
negative national campaign. So I think they’re more likely to be turned off by it.
Oh yeah, and there’s the racial angle too. I hate to even mention
it, but it’s there. Will Democratic voters (the ones who aren’t already
solidly in Hillary’s camp) be more offended than usual by a white woman
picking on a black man? (Hey, identity-politics victimhood worked for
Hillary in New Hampshire when she was the "victim"!)
Again, I’m not predicting a backlash today. But I think it’s
possible. This is almost a "perfect storm" of backlash-friendly circumstances, so if there’s ever going to be a voter rebellion against slash-and-burn politics, you’d think this would be the moment for it. As such, I think Hillary is playing with fire by running these
sort of ads so late in the game.